Alok Vaid-Menon is not from the future. Known for their hyper-saturated style, incisive writing, and personal poetry-meets-cultural criticism-meets-(so funny) stand up performance art, Vaid-Menon is very much the gender-nonconforming femme icon of this moment, and one we truly deserve. Their unmissable swagger, well chronicled on their popular Instagram (126k followers and counting) is not just personal, but highly political. Sixty had a chance to sit down to chat with Vaid-Menon about breaking the rules of style and all the binaries before the sold-out performance of their international touring show, Femme in Public, at AMFM Gallery in June. The show was opened by LaSaia Wade, founder and Executive director of Brave Space Alliance, the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ center located on the South Side of Chicago. While Vaid-Menon might be of this time, like any true visionary, their work opens up a space, or “cracks” as they call it, to imagine and inhabit a different kind of world and existence – one where anyone, but particularly femmes, and especially femmes of color, can inhabit any space without fear or real risk of physical or emotional danger. With a reported 17 trans people murdered this year in the U.S. alone, and disproportionately women of color, Femme in Public is not just an exercise in imagination, but a mandate.
Chelsea Ross: You’re in Chicago for your Femme in Public tour. Can you tell me about the show?
Alok Vaid-Menon: So Femme in Public is a ninety minute solo show which is about many things, but anchored by street harassment. A lot of what I try to push back against is how, in the LGBTQ community and in feminism, we fought for the right to privacy through marriage, property ownership, adoption, but we have not really thought through what it means to fight for the right to the public. So a lot of what I am trying to articulate is the paradox of this moment of trans visibility – it’s a visibility that is only permissible in sort of private encounters, be it a billboard or a stage or a runway, but the minute that we actually go outside, we’re under attack. A lot of what I’m trying to do as a performer is pit things against themselves. The stage is such a charged space as a trans person, because people think that we’re just drag queens or performing, but I sort of bring in people through that shock and awe of the spectacular, and then I say: Why can’t I live like this outside?
CR: Thank you for that. Do you have ideas of what a world where femmes are safe in pubic would look like? I have my own ideas. As a female-identified person moving through the world, I’ve developed my own security tactics and responses to harassment, and I certainly have ideas of what it would look like if that fear and risk went away…
AVM: I have so many ideas, but I think it would require a total and fundamental paradigmatic shift, and that’s why I turned to art. I think a lot of the articulations of feminism and LGBT rights that are still wedded to legislative change, like shifting policies, and we know that shifting policies always just means criminalization. And I think that the dilemma for so many of us who are women and trans people of color is: how do we talk about gender violence without perpetuating the criminalization of our communities?
AVM: And disproportionate mass incarceration and deportation. And so for me it’s really important that I’m not saying these are the policies that I want. I’m not saying I want people to be punished. I think what I’m trying to interrogate at the level of my art is: what are the psychological, philosophical, social, and spiritual dimensions that make it so that traumatized people can’t actually relate to difference.
CR: Absolutely. Can you explain how that functions in your work?
AVM: A lot of what I do through my work is try to imagine what people think when they see me. How can I use my art as a way to heal both them and me? Why have they made me – and especially people color, which is a lot of what my work is about – why have we been made to feel as if we’re only beautiful for binary? And by binary we mean white, and gendered. That we’re only salvageable, that we’re only safe, if we are invisible. And what is so fearful about being visible, and being queer, and being trans. I think that what I hope – I don’t have any sort of naive ideas that my art will change that – but I hope that the people who come to my shows will learn, that one, actually there is no such thing as “trans issues,” there are just issues that we as a society have with trans people, and this is more about us than it is about them. And two, this is actually about working through my own relationship with my own queerness, my own gender nonconformity, versus extrapolating that to seeing LGBT people as a minority, which I don’t think is actually the case. I think all of us have queerness circuited into us. And then three, that I have the ability to not be a bystander. I personally don’t have my reliance or my trust in some sort of knight in shining armor figure. I want us to be able to support each other, so that when we see people getting harassed on the street, and we see people getting made fun of, why do we just watch, or in the case of trans people, why do we film it? Why do we put that online and make it entertainment content? What would it look like if we said, “Hey, that person is my friend.” What I conclude in the show, what I’m calling for, is a world where there are no strangers, just potential friends. And to have an elasticity with one another such that if I’m getting harassed, I could go to anyone on the street and say, “Hey this guy’s been following me for six blocks, can you be my friend?”
CR: I love that. That’s beautiful. The way you describe the visioning aspect of your work is an expression of where I certainly feel like the power of art and especially speculative art lies. That through the prism of that work, we are able and allowed to imagine different possibilities and a different world. To me, it seems like your work exists within that spectrum of speculative work, much like Afrofuturism, but also really grounded in your own experience and the present moment.
AVM: I think it’s like when you begin breaking one binary, you begin breaking them all. For me, the question of time is so foundational in what you’re doing because so many people tell me, “you’re too visionary for your times” or “you’re a visionary artist.”
CR: Like, thank you?
AVM: Like, “You’re the future,” and I think that’s just such an insult, to call someone “the future,” because you’re basically saying, “We’re not ready for you right now.” And what I am arguing is the future and the past are now. So many of the ways we’ve been taught to define time is through whiteness. And I think one of the things I’m saying in my work is like, nothing I’m saying is new. Indigenous people were outside of the gender binary forever.
CR: In so many different cultures, yeah.
AVM: Of course! And I’m not trying to say I want all of us to like identify as non-binary and use they/them. I don’t care. But what I’m trying to say is that this particular iteration of how the world should be is one of many, and what I want my art to be is kind of a portal for an imagining of another way of being.
CR: Absolutely. Along those lines, I want to ask you about the visual presentation of yourself, which is obviously very intentional. I’m interested in that the way that femme – the meaning, the definition and ideas of femme – are used and expressed because it’s such a lightning buzzword right now, which I think carries its own kind of privilege in queer spaces. I’m curious about your style and appearance which seems to be very much a part of your work and your art. What’s your style story or style evolution? How do you think about putting your look together? What does it mean or say about you?
AVM: Style was where I developed agency to create my own self-narrative in a world that already said what my body should be. There are all these sorts of tropes of what I should have been as someone who was born Indian, as someone assigned male at birth. But that’s not me. And so I use style as a way to say something different is going on here. I think my style evolution has been saying that expression is truth. That’s what I really believe as an artist, that I can perform something and become that thing. I just don’t believe that we have to have a singular self that we carry forever. Or a self that is necessarily inscribed in the body. My “self” is something that I’m just constantly flipping around, changing around, whatever. And I believe a lot in fighting for the ephemeral. That’s why I’m a performer. Even within the hierarchical art world, if you’re making sculpture, if you’re making photographs, people can buy them and distribute them, but when you’re making performance, it depends on the energy of the room. And similar to style and performance, these are moments of episodic art that are ephemeral. You catch a glimpse of me on the street and you never forget, and you go to my show for an hour and it sticks with you for life. I really believe in those small moments because I think, for me, when I think about what my theory of social change is, I actually don’t know if it’s going to be one cataclysmic event. I think that it’s about cracks. And I think so much of what style allows me to do is create beautiful cracks.
CR: I love that. How does femme-ness fit within those cracks?
AVM: I see masculinity falling apart around me. I see even ideas of femininity falling apart around me. And I really believe in destruction as another form of creation. And the cyclical nature of the world is so important to what I’m doing with my style, so that’s why I try not to pin it down, to say, “I do this.” I’m sort of listening to myself and doing what I need to do.
CR: How did you put this look together? You’re wearing lime green gogo boots, a shift dress with colorful lines dancing across each other, a sort of floral kimono, a multicolored bun…
AVM: So the problem is that touring means weight restrictions in baggage, which just makes me so sad.
CR: I mean I think you look fabulous!
AVM: Like why are there weight restrictions and why do I have to lug this around by myself. Ugh!
CR: Tell me about it! I’m the worst packer because I want everything. You never know, like you said, style is ephemeral. I never know what I’ll want to wear.
AVM: Exactly! So for me, I was thinking, “Okay, I’m going to be doing like six different gigs, I need to have one piece that I carry throughout. So okay I’m going to start with a shoe.” And then I made six basic outfits around the shoe.
CR: It’s like working a room around a rug.
AVM: What I usually do is I choose one article, and I sort of base everything around that. And then I try to think about where the articles of clothing are from, and what they mean to me. So this garment I’m wearing is from one of my favorite stores in New Delhi. And I’ve been thinking of India a lot. I spend about a month in India every year. And then this dress is so funny because I didn’t think I was going to fit in it, and so it required three people to get me into today, and I love that actually.
CR: Yes! Collaborative dressing. It’s like so Victorian, but also so now.
AVM: That’s what I love about fashion in a lot of ways. Like when I’m shopping, I actually text photos of things to twenty friends and I’m like “Should I?” That sort of sense of beauty being a collaborative project is really important to me. And that’s why a lot of people ask me, you know, how are you so brave, or how do you do what you do, blah blah blah. Those questions don’t makes sense to me because I’m like, who is this you that you’re eliciting? I am a combination of all the people that I love. And I’ve had a lot of people in my life that have uplifted me and celebrated me. Something I’ve been thinking a lot, and I say at my shows too, is that I think we’re so fluent in the language of our pain and the ways that we’ve been hurt, and we find it very difficult to name the ways in which we’ve been loved and been healed. It’s very important to have that balance to me, to say, “Things are horrible, but there are people in the world that I love and believe in.” I think my style is doing justice to the people that I love and believe in. I want to create beauty for me and for us, and I want those people to be able to look at me and say, “I’m inspired by that.” And that’s what I think about when I’m getting dressed, it’s not that I want validation from other people, but I want validation from the people that I’m in community with. When I get dressed, I think about what are my friends going to think when they see this.
Follow Alok on Instagram and Twitter @alokvmenon and explore their work at their website.
Featured Image: Alok Vaid-Menon stands in front of a wall of colorful artworks at AMFM Gallery in Pilsen. Photo by Chelsea Ross.
Chelsea Ross is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and curator.